Learn from the Masters

By Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider

I love my job. I get to spend entire days in the children's section of the book store and call it research. I also get to celebrate birthdays of people I've never met. We recently marked Maurice Sendak's 75th birthday, and the 40th birthday of his most famous child, Max from Where the Wild Things Are. So I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some of Sendak's impressive body of work, and to meet Brundibar, his newest picture book, written by Tony Kushner and based on a Czech opera of the same name.

Whether illustrating someone else's words or his own texts, Sendak could never be accused of taking the easy route to publication. His books are complicated, deeply emotional stories, with subtexts that often illuminate the dark side of human nature. In an interview appearing in the November/December 2003 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, Sendak says "...we can get away with things in children's books that nobody in the adult world ever can because the assumption is that the audience is too innocent to pick it up. And in truth they're the only audience that does pick it up."

It's comments like this that show Sendak's deep respect for his audience, as well as the picture book as an art form. In the same interview, Sendak talks about how he chooses subjects he feels passionately about, or those that resonate with him on a basic emotional level. These are not cute bedtime stories, but books that reveal his soul. Some cut too close to the bone--when he was working on Outside Over There he had a breakdown and stepped away from the project for six months. And though he is revered as one of the most influential artists in the history of children's picture books, Sendak doesn't think of himself as a genius. "I have no brilliant conceptual gift for drawing or any really exceptional gift for writing," he told The Horn Book. "My talent is knowing how to make a picture book. Knowing how to pace it, knowing how to time it. The drawing and the writing are good, but if my whole career counted on that I wouldn't have made it very far."

Virtually every article in the November/December 2003 Horn Book is devoted to analysis and celebration of Sendak's work, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in studying picture books. It inspired me to round up some of my other favorite author/illustrators. I'm no artist, and so I respond to picture books not from a technical aspect but with my gut. Here are three author/illustrators whose work, to me, embodies the pure emotion and wide-eyed wonder of childhood.

* Peggy Rathmann: Rathmann's illustrations always say more than her texts. Packed with tiny, delightful details and secondary characters acting out stories all their own, her books mesmerize even nonreaders. Her latest picture book, The Day the Babies Crawled Away, is stunning. The story is told by a mother recalling the day her young son saved all the babies when they crawled away during a town fair (the parents were busy at the pie-eating contest). The illustrations are black silhouettes against a technicolor sky. Though we can't see the characters' faces we always know who's who: the boy hero wears a fireman's helmet, the babies are distinguished by bows, bonnets and topknots. A butterfly starts the baby parade away from the fair and is soon joined by a caterpillar, a frog, a bat and a bird. The same butterfly lands on Mom's hair at the end of the day as the tired hero falls asleep in her arms. Rathmann makes clever use of every page in the book, starting the story on the endpapers and building through the title page and dedication. Take a close look at the last picture to see how one baby relives her adventure.

* Ezra Jack Keats: Keats' classic, deceptively simple books resonate with the everyday experiences that define childhood. In analyzing The Snowy Day, my lack of artistic experience became apparent. At first glance, I thought the illustrations were bold shapes cut from different types of paper glued on top of each other. But closer inspection shows edges of colors bleeding together and lines that aren't quite filled in, as if they were painted with watercolors and a large brush. Faces were drawn with pencil or charcoal; snowflakes appear stenciled over tissue paper. In any case, the effect is childlike, wet and a little messy, just like playing outside after a big snowstorm. My son especially likes the spread of Peter in his red snowsuit making tracks through unmarred snow, first with his toes pointing out, then with his toes pointing in. After studying the book, Matthew said, "I can make pictures like that." We bought different types of paper and Matthew proceeded to create artwork modeled after Keats. In my opinion, any book so accessible that a child can make it his own is a winner.

* Chris Van Allsburg: Van Allsburg's books have a magical, otherworldly element that often takes my breath away. He is a supremely skilled artist, incorporating design, balance, color and texture in a way that gives the sense of stepping right into the picture. In one spread from The Polar Express, the reader is positioned above Santa's sleigh as he flies over thousands of elves crowded into the North Pole's city center. I almost get dizzy every time I see it. The Polar Express is a very personal story about a boy going for a ride on a magic train that takes him, along with hundreds of other kids, to the North Pole to meet Santa. Van Allsburg's somber palette, the straightforward nature of the text, the depiction of the North Pole as a city of tall buildings past a desert of ice, and the poignant first-person narration all help the story to feel true. Put aside those cutesy Santa stories--here's the real thing.

I urge you to spend a day in the bookstore or library finding those books that make music for you. By studying their rhythms, you'll learn how to make your own stories sing. _______________________________________________________
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com

Copyright 2004, Children's Book Insider, LLC

Follow this link to learn more about the Children's Book Insider.